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What Made Miami Great?

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Part 1: Recruiting

January 1, 1988: NCAA Orange Bowl Game - Oklahoma Sooner v Miami Hurricanes Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Since the entire world remains in limbo with no sports on the immediate horizon, now is an opportune time to take a look back at the factors that made the University of Miami Hurricanes Football Program college football’s greatest from 1980-2005. I have covered before the demise of our beloved Miami Hurricanes here and here, but have not as of yet conveyed why I believe Miami was able to rise to national prominence (and then dominance) so swiftly in the 1980s—that is until now.

Recruiting: What Types of Players Did the Old Miami Recruit?

It is often claimed by Miami fans, that in order to return to national prominence Miami must reassert itself in South Florida as the dominant presence and most glamorous destination. While I do not necessarily disagree with the aforementioned assessment, recruiting is about finding the right guys, not necessarily the highest rated players. Butch Davis, arguably the greatest talent evaluator of all-time, did not bring in top-ranked recruiting classes at Miami on a regular basis. What he did however, was locate players who were special in some way.

Butch Davis...

The Student of the Game

Take Ken Dorsey for instance—who excelled despite his limited arm talent and athletic ability—because of his leadership intangibles, work ethic, focus, and football intelligence. Guys like Brett Romberg, Sherko Haji-Rasouli, and Joaquin Gonzalez from the 2001 offensive line were good, not great, athletes that played with utmost passion on every play and used their collective work ethic and intelligence to outperform every unit in the country. While Bryant McKinnie possessed truly transcendent ability, the current Miami team could undoubtedly use more intelligent lineman with quick feet, like the bulk of the 2000-03 OL that also featured unsung heroes Chris Myers and Rashad Butler: both of whom had long NFL careers.

Miami Hurricanes Beat Nebraska Cornhuskers for National Championship Photo by Jon Soohoo/WireImage

On defense, Ed Reed and Jon Vilma are examples of highly intelligent defensive players that scared opposing teams because of their football knowledge. While not a physically imposing player at a modest 6’ and 200 pounds with approximately 4.6 speed, Ed Reed’s awareness and football IQ are second to none, which is why he was perhaps the greatest safety of all time. There is only one Ed Reed for certain, but guys like Jaquan Johnson and Corn Elder, also just had “it”: an innate ability to read and process information in a football game and react faster than every one else on the field. Sean Spence was another Hurricane that was simply a gamer, despite being undersized for linebacker. Miami needs more of those guys and less of guys—who despite all of their athletic talent and recruiting ranking—drop pass after pass, commit penalty after penalty, and demonstrate a blithe attitude after losing to inferior opponents.

Edward Reed #20 Getty Images

Miami v Virginia Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images

The Underappreciated Underdog

Santana Moss, undersized coming out of high school, accepted a track scholarship to the University of Miami and walked-on to the football team in 1997. Because of his work ethic, sheer speed, toughness, heart and conviction with which he played, Moss became a household name by 1999 and a Miami Hurricanes icon in 2000. While current players post individual highlight tapes after losses, Santana Moss—tears in his eyes and his voice choked up—could barely speak after his gutsy performance against FSU in 2000, demonstrating how much the Miami Hurricanes meant to him. I do not doubt that there are current players that play with the conviction—or a sheer will and determination to not fail, that the old school Canes possessed en masse. The 2019 Miami Hurricanes had a few players that played with tenacity and grit on every play, such as Deejay Dallas, Brevin Jordan, and Trajan Bandy, however the point remains that in order to return to prominence, Miami must recruit athletically gifted underdogs that have been overlooked their entire lives. Because of a desire to prove themselves, underdogs often prepare and play with such intensity and determination that they will not be denied.

Sugar Bowl X Moss

As Miami began to decline, they began to tell guys like Santonio Holmes and Lamar Jackson they were not good enough to wear the “U” on their helmet. Continually rejected, talented athletes like Devonta Freeman take their talent elsewhere and use Miami’s rejection as fuel. They then turn around and rub salt in Miami’s open wound any chance they get. The bottom line is you cannot have enough athletically gifted players who are willing to work hard because they have been spurned time and time again. Lesean McCoy and Dalvin Cook are examples of this principle, as both runningbacks were considered by recruiting analysts as inferior to their stablemates, Graig Cooper and Joe Yearby respectively. Rohan Marley, son of the Reggae sensation with the same surname, is an example of what a fast player that plays with a reckless abandon can accomplish, as the 200 lb. linebacker was a force to be reckoned with alongside Ray Lewis in the early 90s.

NCAA Football - Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Notre Dame vs Ohio State - January 2, 2006 Photo by Gene Lower/Getty Images

The Undersized Player With Speed

Miami should return to the blueprint of the past in order to return to prominence: that is prioritizing speed and agility over size and strength. The fact that I even have to argue this point demonstrates just how far Miami has deviated from its former tenets. In the old days, Miami would recruit tight ends and make them tackles: recruit WRs and make them TEs, recruit DEs and make them DTs, recruit safeties and make them LBs. Eric Winston, recruited as a tight end, was a great left tackle for Miami because of his athleticism and adept feet. Kellen Winslow Jr., recruited as a WR, was a match up nightmare for defenses at tight end. Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson revolutionized college football by emphasizing speed over power at the University of Miami, which has ironically ceased to apply this principle. In the old days, Amari Carter would be an outside linebacker and Al Blades Jr. would be a safety. The idea was to take an average speed safety, and make him a fast linebacker. Doing so at nearly every position, Miami would have a speed and quickness advantage all over the football field. By emphasizing what South Florida is adept at (i.e. game-breaking speed) Miami fielded a unique competitive advantage. I am encouraged that Miami is recruiting only offensive tackles for the 2020 recruiting class, as a tackle can easily become a nimble guard but the corollary is not usually true.

Sporting News Archive Photo by Bob Leverone/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Miami Hurricanes v North Carolina State Wolfpack Photo By Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The National Prospect

Finally, Miami must once again recruit nationally to supplement areas which are deficient locally. On the great Miami teams of the past, players hailed from all over the country: Ed Reed, was an unheralded safety from Louisiana, Bryant McKinnie a JUCO transfer from Minnesota, Jeremy Shockey a JUCO from Oklahoma, DJ Williams a consensus 5-star from California, Ken Dorsey a 4-star from California, Brett Romberg from Canada, etc. In order to field a complete and talented roster, Miami must recruit the right guys from all over the country, including South Florida—which has an abundance of skilled guys, but lacks in the “big uglies.” Since Miami is no longer a nationally relevant program, this may be difficult but may be compensated for by attracting the “right” guys (athletic underdogs, intelligent football players, guys who can switch positions, etc.), rather than merely the highest rated.

Bryant McKinnie #78...

Miami Hurricanes Beat Nebraska Cornhuskers for National Championship Photo by Jon Soohoo/WireImage